Portrait of a Sufi
Contact between Iran, Central Asia, India and the Far East predates the Medieval period by hundreds of years, but it was largely during the mid-thirteenth century, as a result of the vast expansion of the Mongol empire and the close relationship between the Ilkhanid Mongol rulers of Iran and the Yuan Mongol rulers of China, that cross-cultural transmissions intensified between regions. This must certainly have contributed to the appearance of cross-cultural figural types in the art of these areas, as represented by this portrait of a Sufi. The larger folio to which it is attached indicates that this single-page composition once belonged to an album, which may have contained other figural portraits, drawings, paintings, and calligraphies.
This portrait of a Sufi was probably produced in India in the early seventeenth century, when the patronage of single-page compositions became fashionable in other parts of the Islamic world, especially as the Safavid Empire declined and some Iranian artists moved to Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey. The seated figure can be identified as a Sufi by his humble attire, including a sheepskin covering, a bamboo stick (or perhaps a reed flute), and a bowl for alms on the ground beside him. A Persian inscription above the bowl reads, "O Prophet [Muhammad], descendant of Hashim, help comes from you." The value of introspection and the focus on the batin or interior (esoteric knowledge), versus the zahir, or exterior (ostensible lnowledge), is emphasized by the figure's closed, self-contained pose formed by his crossed arms and legs, his furrowed brow, and his trancelike fixation on a point beyond the picture frame. The figure in this painting bears a much more direct and fascinating resemblance to the luohan represented in Chinese paintings. Fifteenth-century Islamic drawings from Central Asia depict similar figures resembling Buddhist ascetics; the artist may have met, or seen depictions of, counterparts in other faiths, an exposure that would not be out of the ordinary in this context. The realistic rendering of human features seen in this portrait, however, is especially typical of Indian painting; the delicate brushwork and soft color palette suggest the Deccan as a place of production.
Ladan Akbarnia in [Akbarnia and Leoni 2009]
42. It should be noted that this process of migration had already begun under the reign of the safavid Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524–1576) in the mid-sixteenth century.
Inscription: In Persian, above the depiction of the Sufi's bowl: "O Prophet, descendant of Hashim, from thee is (our) help" (Information present on card)
Cora Timken Burnett, Alpine, NJ (by 1940–d. 1956; bequeathed to MMA)
Iranian Institute. "Exhibition of Persian Art," 1940, Gal. VII, no. 94.
Venice. Fondazione Giorgio Cini. "Miniature Islamiche dal XIII al XIX Secolo," 1962, no. 74.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rumi," October 15, 2007–March 5, 2008, no catalogue.
New York. Brooklyn Museum. "Light of the Sufis : an introduction to the mystical arts of Islam," June 5, 2009–September 6, 2009, no. 9c.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "Light of the Sufis : an introduction to the mystical arts of Islam," May 16, 2010–August 8, 2010, no. 9c.
Pope, Arthur Upham. Masterpieces of Persian Art. New York, 1945. p. 174, ill. pl. 132 (b/w).
Ackerman, Phyllis. "The Iranian Institute, New York." In Guide to the Exhibition of Persian Art. 2nd. ed. New York: Iranian Institute, 1940. no. Gallery VII, no. 94, p. 203.
Grube, Ernst J. "from Collections in the United States and Canada." In Muslim Miniature Paintings from the XIII to XIX Century. Venice: N. Pozza, 1962. no. 74, p. 94, ill. pl. 74 (b/w).
Swietochowski, Marie, and Richard Ettinghausen. "Islamic Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 36, no. 2 (Autumn 1978). Back cover (color).
Zebrowski, Mark. Deccani Painting. Berkeley, CA: Sotheby Publications, 1983.
Sims, Eleanor, B. Marshak, and Ernst J. Grube. "Persian Painting and its Sources." In Peerless Images. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. no. 174, p. 259, (color).
Akbarnia, Ladan, and Francesca Leoni. "The Mystical Arts of Islam." In Light of the Sufis. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2010. no. 9c, pp. 32–33, ill. p. 33 (color).